In 1998, a generation of kids was introduced to 10-year old Ash Ketchum- a boy finally old enough to pursue his dream of becoming a world-class Pokemon trainer. Unfortunately, Ash overslept on the morning of his ceremony, and by the time he arrived on-site most of the Pokemon had already been given away to other trainers. There was only one left: an ornery small Pikachu, who has zero interest in obeying Ash.
Their relationship was contentious at first. Pikachu refused to enter his Pokeball, and tried repeatedly to escape, forcing Ash to drag him along by a rope. It was only after Ash risked his own life to protect Pikachu from an angry flock of Spearrows that the little Pokemon decided to trust his new master, forging the beginnings of an unbreakable friendship.
In that long-ago television series, becoming a “Pokemon Master,” was a serious responsibility that involved devoting one’s life to the well-being of the Pokemon in your care. In a later episode, Ash was outraged to discover an abandoned Charmander, still loyally waiting for his master’s return in the rain.
The show always emphasized the emotional bond and mutual respect needed between Pokemon and Trainer, an element that is woefully missing from today’s PokemonGo game. After playing the game for two weeks, I found myself disappointed with the rather bleak premise:
Players are encouraged to poach endangered creatures, forcibly confine them against their will in small cages (pokeballs), and only release them for combat — an activity that requires “revival potions” to heal the Pokemon that are so injured from their battles that they pass out.
Interactions between trainers and Pokemon are limited to either pumping them with steroids (stardust) to improve their combat abilities, or coldly discarding them by giving them to Professor Oak for “research.” The game basically normalizes digital dogfighting.
Compare this approach to another Japanese craze from the late 90s: Tamagotchi — where the digital creatures’ development was directly related to the quality of care it received from its owners. Players were rewarded for training, playing, feeding, and loving their online pet.
Technology transmits beliefs and attitudes through the most seemingly superficial of mechanisms, and those of us who care about technology have to be sensitive to the messages its use sends. In this case, the much-discussed augmented-reality feature encourages players to snatch Pokemon from their natural habitats–lakes, parks, and rivers–not caring that they don’t want to be caught, and forces them to fight each other.
The sheer scale of this game’s popularity is having an impact on our digital culture. In an era where poaching, environmental conservation, and the ethical treatment of animals (see: blackfish) are such important issues, what message is PokemonGO sending to people about respecting the world and the creatures who inhabit it?
Technology continues to dissolve the boundaries between our online and offline worlds, merging them together to create new experiences and perspectives. Isn’t a game that has captivated the attention of millions of people an incredible opportunity to help promote a more positive outlook about nature?
Gaming and Digital Empathy:
Games are powerful tools that improve skills like problem solving, collaboration, and strategic thinking, but there are a host of emotional lessons we can learn as well. Scientists have been studying digital empathy, examining how humans navigate complex social interactions online without the guidance of non-verbal cues. (The Institute for the Future’s Eri Gentry wrote about this topic here in 2014.)
While numerous studies have been published linking violent video games with an increased propensity for aggression, research also shows that emotional responses such as empathy can be strengthened through the use of pro-social games. Examples include “That Dragon, Cancer” a game about a boy fighting a terminal illness, and “Papo & Yo,” showing a child coping with his alcoholic father.
PokemonGo has encouraged people to go out and explore the world around them, a great boon for those who live increasingly sedentary lifestyles. And I fully get that not every game has to provide a meaningful life lesson or have a deep purpose. I’m not proposing we get out our pitchforks, or add a virtual arm to PETA’s animal rights activism efforts (It would have to be chaired by Hermione Granger, Pioneer of House Elf Rights, of course). I’m simply thinking about the messages this game is sending and the important opportunities that exist to create alternative narratives. PokemonGo has the influence, brand value, and audience to move beyond simple entertainment to encourage a higher level of awareness and kindness.
Currently, PokemonGo devalues and commoditizes Pokemon, ignoring one of the most important legacies left behind by the original series: the most successful trainers were those who shared a mutual respect, trust, and loyalty with their Pokemon companions. It’s an attitude I’d like to see more of from Nintendo — and I think Ash and Pikachu would agree.